Organized to support community efforts that encourage reading, the National Book Foundation held its 2nd annual Why Reading Matters conference June 15 at The Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Long Island City, and awarded its annual $10,000 Innovations in Reading Prize to Alvin Irby, founder of Barbershop Books, a program that encourages young black boys to read.

The conference keynote was delivered by novelist and now bookstore owner Emma Straub, who gave a entertaining address about how she and her husband became novice bookstore owners, opening the Books Are Magic bookstore in Brooklyn in April of this year.

Straub told the audience “A year ago I didn’t know I would have a store,” and went on to describe her efforts to open a store after Book Court, her neighborhood bookstore, closed in 2016. She praised the help of other Brooklyn booksellers, like Word’s Christine Onorati, who she “texted a 100 times a day about how to do everything,” as well as other author/booksellers like Ann Patchett.

Straub said she took on the challenge of teaching herself to be a business person because, “We didn’t want to live in a neighborhood that didn’t have a bookstore. We want Books Are Magic to be a part of the daily life of the neighborhood.”:

National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas said the Why Reading Matters event is intended “to invite everyone to get together and talk about new ways to engage readers.” Lucas explained that NBF programs aren’t about the mechanics of teaching people how to read. “We’re not the spinach, we’re the dessert,” she said laughing. “We’re here to get people excited about reading.”

The event is organized around the NBF’s Innovations in Reading Prize. Originally organized as luncheon to honor innovative reading activists, Lucas has expanded it into a full day conference that helps teach and spread techniques that encourage people to read. The conference attracted about 200 attendees that included educators, librarians, administrators, and reading advocates from around the tri-state area.

The conference featured a variety of reading activists/advocates who offered personal stories and tutorials in a series of breakout sessions intended to help attendees create their own reading programs. Presenters included Catherine LaSota, founder of LIC Reading Series, which hosts a series of lively literary readings and events at the LIC Bar in Long Island City. There was also Laura Moulton of Street Books, a Portland Oregon mobile library organization that uses bicycle carts to bring books to the homeless or others that live on the streets, for free.

But the star of the conference was clearly the $10,000 Innovations prize winner Irby, a former kindergarten teacher turned professional comedian. He started Barbershop Books as an effort that enlists about 50 Barbershops in black communities across about 12 cities to encourage young African American boys to read. The program creates “child friendly” spaces in Barbershops stocked with books that will appeal boys.

A charismatic personality, Irby showed off his appeal during a packed breakout session. Irby offered a combination of formal educational pedagogy and personal anecdotes in a very funny presentation that encourages teachers and parents to think about how they present books to kids—especially to black youngsters. He wryly criticized parents and teachers for often forcing super-serious African American titles about racism and segregation on young readers—“you can almost hear the Negro spirituals rising off the pages,” he said to laughter across the room.

He explained that when you ask a group of children what kind of books they actually want to read, their answer is invariably, “books that make me laugh.”